Comcast offers Chappy service, if residents share costs

Comcast trucks are ready to roll to Chappy if residents are willing to sign up for service. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Comcast has offered to provide cable service to Chappaquiddick, but only if residents agree to pick up part of the tab. Edgartown’s insistence that the cable giant serve its small island subdivision has proven a stumbling block to the renewal of the company’s Island-wide cable franchise contract.

The six Island towns and Comcast have been wrangling for nearly two years over the terms of a new 10-year agreement that authorizes the company to provide Island-wide service.

In what it calls its final proposal, Comcast said it would build the infrastructure to bring cable to Chappaquiddick at a cost $1.58 million. The company wants Chappaquiddick residents to pay $824,000 of that cost. The cost would be divided up among the existing residents.

In its proposal, Comcast based the project cost on providing service to 540 homes. If the owners of 540 homes buy cable service, the capital cost for each home would be $1,526. If only 40 percent, or 216 homeowners decide to connect, the cost to each would be $3,815.

In addition to paying a share of the initial capital costs, residents would be required to pay for their own connections if their house is more than 250 feet from the main cable. Monthly cable fees for basic digital television service, $57, would be additional.

Roger Becker, president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association, has some reservations about the proposal.

“I’m a little negative on the whole thing, but I might be wrong,” Mr. Becker said in a telephone call Thursday. “I hope the thing gets somewhere.”

He said many Chappaquiddick residents live more than 250 feet from the main roads, which will mean additional costs to connect.

“I was going to suggest that it be set up as a monthly fee,” Mr. Becker said. “Why not have a Chappy surcharge. For example, they’re looking for $3,000 over a 10-year contract. That’s less than 30 a month. Maybe people could stomach that a little easier.”

Edgartown, with the support of other Island towns, has insisted that Comcast provide service to Chappaquiddick as part the new agreement. That position has been the main obstacle to an agreement as negotiations dragged into a second year.

Jennifer Rand, the West Tisbury town administrator, who is chairman of the Island’s cable advisory committee, said the Comcast proposal seems viable.

“It will hopefully move it forward,” Ms. Rand said. “There are some things we need to sort out, but you don’t look at it and say ‘no way.’ You read it and say ‘this might be workable.’ We are moving forward.”

Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby called the Comcast proposal a fair agreement, if the company will make some small modifications.

In a letter dated September 12, emailed to Chappy community leaders along with the Comcast proposal, Ms. Dolby raised questions about the total project cost, including the cost Comcast must pay to use NSTAR conduits to carry cable to Chappaquiddick.

“I would like to see some type of proof that this project will cost $1.58 million,” Ms. Dolby wrote. “To date there has been no breakdown and no details of the NSTAR agreement.”

The Island’s cable advisory board, charged with negotiating a new 10-year contract for cable service, issued a request for proposals in February of 2011. As expected, Comcast was the only company that responded.

Under terms of the current license agreement, Comcast pays the town five percent of the cable television revenues it receives annually from an estimated 10,000 Island subscribers. The annual fees have been about $400,000, based on Comcast’s annual Island cable revenues of $8 million, in recent years. Island officials and Comcast agreed to extend the current agreement four times, as the negotiations stalled. At one point, Edgartown pulled out of the contract negotiations, charging that Comcast was no longer communicating with town officials, or taking Edgartown’s concerns seriously.

Under Federal Communications Commission rules, communities may negotiate only for cable television service, not for telephone or Internet services often provided by cable companies. Towns may not set rates that consumers pay, nor do they have any say in determining or changing programming, including packages offered by the cable provider.